“I don’t think we should go out of our way to insult Islam because it doesn’t do any good to get your head cut off. But we should always say that I may refrain from publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed, but it’s because I fear you. Don’t for one moment think it’s because I respect you.”
-Richard Dawkins, 2010 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne.
Fear can be quite an effective motivator when it comes to silencing your critics. Make people ask if the consequences of speaking out are worth the trouble and you’ll find the voices of your opposition will fade from the public stage. But as Dawkins noted, the quiet fear of retribution is not the same as respectful silence.
Perhaps the more aggressive of the Islamic fundamentalists care little for having their position respected by anybody, let alone a kafir like Dawkins; fear-induced submission, regardless of the cost, could be their goal. If it is, they can claim a resounding success.
Those within the ‘rationalist surge’ communities of atheism, feminism and skepticism are currently debating a parallel situation. Phil Plait presented a speech at TAM 8 that spoke against the use of mockery and ridicule when it comes to conversing with believers.
When it comes to communicating on topics relevant to the group’s interests, should we endeavour to curtail our passion-fuelled frustration, or is ridicule and mockery an appropriate response to some ideas? The answer, of course, is complicated and contextual, depending entirely on one’s intentions.
Why are we talking?
Why do we talk? I’d suggest it was to be heard, and possibly understood and even have our view appreciated.
Let’s clump all possible intentions behind a person’s desire to communicate into a blunt dichotomy – self-gratification and non self-gratification. In other words, you’re either engaging with somebody because it makes you feel good or you’re doing it in an effort to change somebody’s mind (including the possibility of changing your own position). For current purposes we can completely ignore the first category on the grounds of being self-evident in its results – if mocking others makes you feel good, then mission accomplished. We can say it’s effective. Of course, it raises questions on whether ridiculing somebody for selfish reasons is morally reprehensible, but as to whether it can be considered contextually appropriate, the answer is a clear ‘yes’.
That leaves us with communication for non-selfish reasons; there is a desire to influence the behaviour of other people. Again, there is a dichotomy we can invoke here – there are those who are product-driven and those who are process-driven.
‘Product’ in this case describes a practical change. That might involve anything from making certain acts illegal or encouraging the removal of disagreeable products from shelves. The way this is achieved could involve the extreme of lying to people so they’ll believe you, to a more mundane gentle social coercion. In short, product-driven communicators are less concerned about the ‘how’ than they are about the ‘what’, whether it is for people to not to believe in God, not to have alternative medicine available to the community or to make it illegal for businesses not to have a certain number of women on their board.
Process-driven communication is about changing the way people arrive at their conclusions, hopefully leading them to make decisions more compatible with a shared set of values. It’s the difference embodied by the idiom ‘teach a person to fish’, as opposed to simply giving them a poached halibut for their supper.
While both categories might ultimately desire the same outcomes – such as a community where people opt for chemotherapy over homeopathy or where God isn’t thanked for life-saving operations – each faction desires this to be achieved in subtly different ways. And although it is a dichotomy for the purposes of this discussion, few can place themselves solidly in either category for all situations. Being process-driven does not make one a hardcore anarchist where government laws are anathema. Likewise, being product-driven doesn’t mean a complete disregard for the need for promoting good thinking skills.
Yet variation in opinion holds enough within any group that individuals will go about achieving their outcomes in subtly different ways, depending on whether the process or the product is considered to be more important. For example, product-driven communicators might target a shop owner and petition them to remove a product from their shelves. A process-driven communicator might explain to the public through a campaign or a media outlet how that product is defective, offensive or ineffective. Each will employ different communication strategies depending on their ultimate goal.
This is ridiculous!
Before we look at the impact of ridicule in achieving either process-driven or product-driven objectives, it is important to define the behaviour in question.
Essentially, any communication that is intended to cause an audience to associate the holding of a particular opinion with a sense of shame, embarrassment, fear, subservience or any other oppressive sentiment can (for the intentions of this essay) be described as mockery or ridicule. It’s obvious that some people will feel offended by any form of non-complimentary feedback, lending people to conflate ridicule with any criticism; ridicule, however, can be considered to be defined by the communicator’s intentions rather than the audience’s reaction.
Ridicule can be spontaneous or it can be carefully crafted. It can take the form of clever sarcasm or witless insults. It might attack a person directly or be implied indirectly. It might be easy to spot or worded in a way that somebody might weasel out of it later if they come under fire. However it is presented, ridicule is a form of aggressive behaviour that aims to reduce a person’s confidence in an idea using emotional manipulation.
The target need not always be the person who presents the idea, either. For any act of communication, there can often be the hidden audience – lurkers, fence-sitters and the non-committed. While many forms of communication might for all purposes appear to be localised between two parties, it’s typically understood that there are additional audiences who are passively involved. Ridiculing an idea can just as easily be intended to emotionally challenge those on the sidelines into changing or reinforcing their behaviour, siding with your views over theirs.
So, does it work? Will ridicule influence your audience? Yes…and no. It primarily depends on who your audience is.
Unfortunately research on aggressive language as an effective means of outreach in rationalist grassroots communities is rather thin. No specific study provides us with an insight into how ridicule might effectively address irrational beliefs. The best we can manage is to extrapolate from the small amount of research done in relative fields on similar topics.
Arguably a good place to start might be a concept in sociology referred to as ‘impression management’ (IM) – the theoretical processes we use when we try to influence how others see things. This can cover everything from how supermarkets will display their stock to whether a politician wears a red or a blue tie to a debate.
According to contemporary IM theories, this behaviour comes in three varieties, depending on the method of communication –
- Ingratiation: Encouraging compliance in others through attempting to inspire good feelings
- Supplication: Encouraging cooperation, empathy or dominance in another through appearing weaker or submissive
- Intimidation: Encouraging submission in others through appearing stronger
The American sociologist Erving Goffman theorised in his text ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ that goals are best met when there is congruence between our choice of method and the perception we wish people to have. Wanting people to like you by intimidating them won’t work very well, in other words.
More specifically, the sociologist Richard Felson has applied IM theory to aggressive communication, concluding that intimidating behaviour might be an effort to reinstate one’s identity in a situation following a perceived threat or ‘attack’. Hence when we encounter something we feel is not just wrong but detrimental or incomprehensible (or just plain silly), our response is to meet the threat aggressively to re-establish a sense of perspective that we’ve felt has been lost.
While it isn’t the only theory addressing the role of aggression in communication, IM has some strong evidence supporting its propositions. It goes some way towards explaining why people might employ the use of ridicule even if it is found to be otherwise completely ineffective in achieving their communication goal.
A few pedagogical investigations have addressed the role of ridicule and mockery as a form of classroom management. Perhaps surprisingly, there is evidence supporting the use of insults and sarcasm as an educational corrective, encouraging commitment to a particular activity (such as reading a text), but mostly for children over the age of six but before mid-adolescence. The fear of humiliation appears to be enough to motivate children into applying themselves to simple tasks. There is a counter to this approach as a recommended classroom management tool, where ridicule and social isolation can have a detrimental impact on student confidence and self-esteem, however it is indeed evidence demonstrating that if the goal is purely to motivate young students to engage, it is effective.
On the other hand, as students develop, aggressive language seems to lose its motivational quality. For instance, there is a negative correlation between the amount of aggressive language (including swearing, ridicule and teasing) used by a college instructor and the young adult student’s affect towards course content. It appears that as the social dynamics change with the onset of adolescence the threat of ridicule diminishes and it becomes associated with incompetence rather than authority.
Perhaps the most relevant study in this regard is one that coins the term ‘jeer pressure’ in examining the effects ridicule on third parties has on conformity. Put simply, the act of seeing others being ridiculed is enough to encourage conformity. Not only is the humiliation itself effective – retaliation is seen as a sign of weakness, making it difficult to respond to. Given that most forms of criticism are typically enough for people to withdraw from contributing to a group discussion, this is hardly surprising at all.
So, ridicule appears to be an effective way of discouraging free thought and maintaining beliefs held by a social group, especially amongst groups of children. Other research on this topic only goes further in supporting how adult groups use isolation or humiliation to encourage conformity, where ‘reactions to ingroup deviants are … based on an individual-protection motive, namely the desire to distance oneself from unfavorable others in order to reduce the likelihood that one will be associatively miscast.’ (Pinto et al, 2010). In the context of discouraging individual thoughts, encouraging group-think and conformity, ridicule is extremely effective. Threat of humiliation within a group makes it difficult for ‘black sheep’ thinking to persist, thereby maintaining an illusion of being an effective way of promoting a particular set of values.
Yet what of those external to a particular social group? What of those who couldn’t care less about whether they’re accepted as part of the fold? Unfortunately the evidence for using aggressive language, ridicule and mockery as a means of communicating with people outside of your own clique (whether this is a student in a classroom or a visitor on an internet forum) isn’t very supportive.
A 1992 communications study by a leading researcher in the field of aggression and communication – Dominic Infante – looked into situations where argumentativeness and verbal aggression occurred together, and found that the more aggressive the speaker, the less credible they were deemed to be and less able to appear to present a valid argument. Other studies have found that third party observers of arguments perceive greater levels of aggression and less credibility of parties who engage in even ‘light’ aggressive tactics. Another study investigating argument progression within paired speakers found verbal aggression was inversely associated with the proportion of arguments. Far from being conducive to discussions on controversial issues, aggressive language reduces desire for verbal interaction and impedes the depth of what is being discussed.
None of this is perhaps surprising when seen in the light of a sociological phenomenon called ‘group polarisation’. The theory states that social groups of contrasting beliefs or ideals will tend to reinforce their differences when engaging in discussion. A feature of confirmation bias, it essentially means we have a tendency to find reasons to reinforce our beliefs when we come together in groups to make decisions. This occurs to such a great extent we’ll re-negotiate risks, taking bigger gambles than we would alone (referred to as ‘risky shifts’). Aggressive behaviour only further polarises the situation, exacerbating the existing phenomenon.
Be rid of ridicule?
What can we conclude from this sample of research? Several things.
Grassroots rationalist groups who engage in any form of communication with the public might want to seek, contribute to and encourage research into the results of their outreach efforts. Given we know relatively little about the impacts of various forms of public communication, knowing which efforts are useful, which are useless and which are damaging is invaluable for groups who don’t have the resources to waste on getting it wrong or the luxury of losing potential audience members.
Secondly, there is evidence supporting the use of aggressive language such as ridicule only under limited contexts. Those contexts seem to conflict with what one might presume to be ‘rationalist’ values – endeavours that arguably promote freedom of thought over indulging in group-think and critical thinking over conformity. However, if those goals are product-driven, where success is measured not by how people think but by the pressure a group can exhibit on a key demographic, ridicule and mockery just might work. Humiliating the right targets could well create conformity and result in laws being changed, products being removed from shelves, people being fired or hired from influential positions…and so on. For product-driven rationalists, there is some wiggle-room in arguing for the use of ridicule.
Lastly, if the goal is to encourage those from diverse communities to think critically and to cooperate in order find ways of limiting the impact of poor thinking on individuals and the community, then ridicule is a poor choice of communication. At best it further polarises the issues, prompting those you’re trying to communicate with to reinforce their poor thinking skills while doing little to help them think logically. At worst, it prompts third parties to view your argument as comparatively uninformed, potentially isolating individuals who might otherwise be reached by a less aggressive approach.
Of course many people are far beyond changing their epistemology and can be expected to indulge in spreading irrational beliefs regardless of any attempts to ‘educate’ them or change their views. Some might argue there is no harm in ridicule in those cases. Yet there are two responses to that – certainty is for politicians and priests (not those of rational minds). How certain can a person ever be that they ‘know’ their audience is permanently beyond reach? There is less harm in simply ignoring a person out of the possibility that one day they might be more inclined to change their values by somebody who is better skilled at communication; and there are always more reasonable third parties who, out of sympathy for your target, might find it difficult to distinguish the reason from your ridicule.
Unfortunately the playing field isn’t a simple one necessarily capable of supporting many different methods. One rationalist’s actions can make another’s attempts at communication more difficult at achieving success. One person’s insults under the banner of ‘rational thought’ can paint others in a dark light. Promoting scientific and rational values in the wider community is by no means a simple affair, and will take time and effort. The last thing we can afford to do is make it harder purely out of an emotional desire to mock and belittle those who don’t agree. We might be able to aggressively manipulate some into accepting we’re right. But to borrow from Dawkins, using emotional manipulation to elicit submission is not the same as encouraging people to submit to the discussion respectfully. I, personally, would much rather focus on encouraging others to identify irrational beliefs for themselves than waste time and energy on ridiculing the ridiculous.
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